Wishing You a Very Merry Lent!
This Wednesday, the liturgical calendar marks the start of lent.
Lent is one of those liturgical seasons that made no sense to me as a young believer. It just seemed like a lot of religious nonsense, people trying to earn something from God by giving up meat or chocolate for 40 days (of course, preceded by a few days of absolute indulgence to carry them through this “long” season of self-imposed suffering). It seemed silly and like a distortion of the gospel that calls us to grace.
I have grown in recent years to appreciate the purpose and meaning of the liturgical rhythms of life and worship. Yes, some people go through the motions of liturgy mindlessly, or worse, in a way that makes a derision of the original intent. But I’ve come to see that I judged liturgy unfairly because some who practiced it did so without sincerity.
So, what does it look like for us to engage the season of lent that increases both our experience of and appetite for grace?
I’m just wrestling with how to answer that. I think part of the answer comes in looking at the intent for the season.
The word “lent” comes from an Old English word that simply means “spring,” the season between winter and summer, when dormant things start coming back to life. As flowers start to bud and things start “greening up,” the heart is filled with longing and anticipation of winter’s end. It is nature’s celebration of rebirth. Spring was the perfect backdrop to God’s dramatic demonstration that death would not win the day. Jesus became the firstborn from the dead with the beautiful backdrop of golden mustard flowers celebrating new life with him.
Lent was a season marked by longing and anticipation. It was also a season marked by fasting during the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday, imitating the 40 days Jesus fasted to prepare for his public ministry.
Obviously, fasting can be done with wrong motives. Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day for fasting in a way that gained them public praise. He didn’t tell them to stop fasting, though. He told them to do it right. He told them to do it privately, in a way that would renew their humility and sense of dependence.
When I became a believer, no one in my circle of influence talked about fasting or taught me how to do it. I read about it in the Bible, so I tried it. I’d stop eating at first for a day, then for a couple, and once for a whole week. I didn’t seem to be getting any more spiritual as a result of these seasons of self-imposed suffering, though. In fact, I seemed to be getting quite a bit worse, as I became grumpy and generally more unpleasant to be around. I wasn’t sure how to do it or even why I was doing it. And, to be honest, I was always tempted to fast bigger and better than everyone else so I could have a point of pride. So, I quit fasting pretty much all together for decades.
Somewhere along the line, something clicked and I started to see how fasting could, in fact, be valuable as a means of increasing my experience of grace. If God gives grace to the humble (not that the humble receive more grace, but they do experience more of the grace they are given), then anything that reminds me of and invites me back into humble dependency can become a magnifier of grace.
There is a general truth: when I am well-fed and comfortable, I am likely to grow self-satisfied and forget my need for humble dependence on God (and the need for continual gratitude to God). Fasting is an intentional strategy to disrupt my comfort and remind me of my continual need for grace (even in the grumpiness that often rises up as a result of my discomfort).
So, I’ve learned the value of strategic fasting as a way to create recurring, intentional, and limited discomfort that prompts me to pray. I might skip a meal once a day or delete all social media from my phone or leave my radio off on my commutes. None of these things is impressive or heroic, but the small discomfort I experience when lunch rolls around, or I reach for my phone, or I sit in silence in my car does grab my attention. I’m either going to grumble or pray. That’s the point – the discomfort grabs my attention and reminds me to repent of my need to always have things my own way and instead lay my needs before God and be grateful for the way God provides for my needs.
So, I’ve come to see the value of lent as a way to prepare our hearts for the overflowing, abundant blessing of God that we celebrate in the resurrection – to tune our hearts to respond to grace with joyful gratitude. Often, Easter comes and goes like any other holiday – creating a bit of stress, giving us a photo-op, and a chance for fun with kids – but then passing without having much lasting impact on our hearts. We gave thanks, but we didn’t experience true and deep gratitude. We celebrated the resurrection but didn’t grow in our experience of its power. The liturgical practice of lent is a real and powerful way to help us prepare to experience the wonder of the resurrection.
But should we add more discomfort to a season already so filled with struggle and involuntary limitations? Maybe. Maybe not. You are going to have to ask God about that. For some of us, the pandemic has already overwhelmed us with restrictions and sacrifice. If so, I do think that there are ways to enter into the spirit of lent without adding additional discomfort to our lives. It will require us to take an existing, recurring discomfort and turn it into a voluntary expression of worship – to choose the unchosen sacrifice, to reject being a victim of our circumstances and instead engage the suffering as a voluntary sacrifice and ask God to meet us in it to renew our experience of grace and gratitude.
Ash Wednesday is tomorrow. We are now 40 days from Resurrection Sunday. With the current restrictions and weather conditions, we won’t be hosting anything at the building to officially start the season with you. But I would encourage you to be intentional with the season. Don’t miss this chance, along with believers all around the world, to intentionally prepare your heart to celebrate the wonder of the resurrection.